Sunday, 16 April 2017

Why give to Africa when there are food banks in Scotland?

'We shouldn't be giving to Africa when there are food banks in Scotland.'

I was taken aback by my friend's comment, expressed with some vehemence. She was particularly referring to Malawi, one of her irritations being that we hear and read so much about Malawi in Scotland and that there are so many financial appeals for so many projects, that some people now say that they are experiencing 'Malawi-overload'.

I had to do some careful thinking before I responded. I am not going to try to craft a 'pat' answer here, for I don't think there is one. However, I am going to explore some of the issues.

A lot depends on what we mean by words like 'hunger' or 'deprivation'. What do we mean by hunger in Africa? What do we mean by hunger in Scotland? Who receives food handouts in Scotland? Who receives food handouts in Malawi? What about 'malnutrition'? Is that the same as 'hunger'? What about 'starvation' or 'famine'? These are all terms which we use loosely in everyday life but which have specific definitions in a humanitarian context.

I have no intention of writing an encyclopaedic article about hunger in Africa, about which you will no doubt be relieved. Here are some thoughts, though.

The UN ranks food security into five levels, of which famine is the fifth and most severe. For the UN to officially declare a famine, three important conditions must be met. First, 20% of the population must have fewer than 2100 kilocalories of food available per day. Secondly, more than 30% of children must be acutely malnourished. And finally, two deaths per day in every 10,000 people - or four deaths per day in every 10,000 children - must be caused by lack of food. 
The UN scale, called the Integrated  Food Security Phase Classification (IPC), is summarised below. It is used by all major humanitarian organisations, such as Care, Save the Children and Oxfam.
1. Generally Food SecureMore than 80% of households can meet basic food needs without atypical coping strategies
2. Borderline Food InsecureFor at least 20 percent of households, food consumption is reduced but minimally adequate without having to engage in irreversible coping strategies. These households cannot fully meet livelihoods protection needs.
3. Acute Food and Livelihood CrisisAt least 20 percent of households have significant food consumption gaps OR are marginally able to meet minimum food needs only with irreversible coping strategies such as liquidating livelihood assets. Levels of acute malnutrition are high and above normal.
4. Humanitarian EmergencyAt least 20 percent of households face extreme food consumption gaps, resulting in very high levels of acute malnutrition and excess mortality; OR households face an extreme loss of livelihood assets that will likely lead to food consumption gaps. 
5. Famine /Humanitarian CatastropheAt least 20 percent of households face a complete lack of food and/or other basic needs and starvation, death, and destitution are evident; and acute malnutrition prevalence exceeds 30% ; and mortality rates exceed 2/10000/day
'Irreversible coping strategies' could be selling precious farm animals and spending the money on food for your family. The World Health Organisation defines severe acute malnutrition as a very low weight for height, visible severe wasting, or the presence of nutritional oedema. Such malnutrition is responsible for 35% of deaths among children under five worldwide.

Scotland and the rest of the UK are almost certainly on Level 1 of the IPC scale. Most families have enough food in terms of quantity, though, for various reasons - some relating to poverty, but some also social or cultural - it may be of low quality or inadequate, or lack variety. Only in the rarest cases do people actually die of hunger here, though their health may be significantly affected by a poor diet. Nevertheless, the number of food banks used by the most needy has multiplied, largely as a result of benefits cuts and sanctions. The existence of a section of the population without enough to eat results from political decision making rather than a genuine shortage of food. As British citizens, we influence welfare policies through the ballot box at both UK and Scottish levels.

Malawi is probably on Level 3, sometimes Level 4, the situation varying across the country and during the year. Flooding and drought caused by climate change, as well as two periods of severe drought due to El Nino, have resulted in food shortages. Unpredictable weather has delayed the usual planting cycles, leading to permanent wilting of crops and poor harvests. People find it difficult to provide even one meal a day as maize prices have soared. A lack of water is increasing the prevalence of disease and affecting future crop production. In July 2016, the Malawi government issued a Joint Humanitarian Response Plan. International donors, including the World Food Programme and government departments such as our own Department for International Development (DfID), Oxfam and other agencies are working with the government to meet the needs of the most vulnerable. Anybody who occasionally reads this blog knows this already. The UN has not declared a famine, but the situation over the past year has been critical. 6.5 million people face food insecurity, with some at particularly high risk of malnutrition, such as pregnant women and 975,000 children under two years old.

Since my friend and I conversed, four countries have been identified as experiencing actual 'famine', Level 5: the Yemen, Nigeria, South Sudan and Somalia. Drought caused by climate change is one cause, resulting in the deaths of large numbers of cattle and goats. Another is conflict. Civil war and the actions of terrorist groups such as Boko Haram or Al Shabbab have led to people fleeing their homes, leaving crops unharvested and land uncultivated. We in the UK have contributed to the situation in the Yemen, through our arms sales to Saudi Arabia. Britain is also on the UN Security Council and hence holds some responsibility for the continuing conflicts in a number of countries, not just in Africa but in the Middle East.

Globally, one in nine people in the world today (795 million) is undernourished, 12.9% of the population in developing countries.Two thirds of hungry people live in Asia. In sub-Saharan Africa, the rate of undernourishment is 23%. Poor nutrition causes nearly half (45%) of deaths in children under five: 3.1 million children each year. Across the developing world, 66 million primary school-age children attend classes hungry, 23 million in Africa alone. One in four of the world’s children suffer stunted growth, a condition which results in irreversible brain damage and difficulty in benefiting fully from education. They are particularly vulnerable to diseases such as malaria. In developing countries the proportion can rise to one in three. In Malawi, 40% of children under five are stunted.

All these facts are well known. Our eyes glaze over. We have heard it all before.

The 'solutions' are also well known:
  • solve the conflicts;
  • deal with the pollution, mostly from the west, which causes climate change;
  • educate girls so they have fewer children, give birth to them later and in health facilities, and bring them up to be healthy; 
  • control major diseases like malaria and tuberculosis, and eradicate mother-to-child transmission of HIV; and
  • improve agriculture and nutrition by increasing crop diversity and irrigation. 
The difficulties come from implementing the solutions.

Poor nutrition in Scotland, both historic and current, means that we are familiar with the sight of stunted older people from a previous generation, and lethargic, inattentive and often overweight children in many of today's classrooms. Nowadays, Scottish councils, supported by the government, provides breakfast clubs and free school meals to support such children, and charities provide food banks to help their parents. This is action which should not be necessary in a rich country like our own, but these children do not die of hunger.

In contrast, I still remember the shock I felt the first time I saw a child I knew would die before the year was out. We were chatting to a group of children in western Uganda when their mother brought out a toddler with stick thin legs and 'transparent' skin. Over in the east, during a bad patch, we saw children with scant reddish hair and swollen stomachs, kwashiorkor, despite Uganda being a fertile country with good rainfall. I have seen such health conditions more often in Malawi. I haven't seen them in Scotland.

I do not believe that humanitarian support for countries in Africa or Asia and support for food banks in Scotland should be seen as alternatives. In a rich country like ours, charitable giving does not have to be an either/or decision. It is not 'wrong' to give to a developing country because there is poverty in Scotland, nor should we always have to put ourselves or our own people first. The common expression 'Charity begins at home' is based on a selfish idea and a misunderstanding of the word 'charity' which in this context actually means 'love'.

More worrying than the need for, or the destination of the money itself are the tactics sometimes used to raise it. The MP David Lammy recently wrote an interesting article in the Guardian in which he questioned the role of well-known fundraising tactics in the persistence of misleading and humiliating stereotypes. Here is some of what he says:

Comic Relief has tattooed images of poverty in the African continent to the point where few of us can escape the guilt of not donating. The result: a tidal wave of donations, but little to challenge the Band Aid interpretation of an Africa “where nothing ever grows”. It still blurs the 54 separate, sovereign nations into a single reservoir of poverty, grief and suffering. One billion African people are filtered into just two categories: either corrupt politicians replete with Savile Row suits and Swiss bank accounts, or poverty-stricken mothers swarmed by flies, their children's stomachs swollen by hunger.

Now, some of the work that Stuart and I have carried out has been supported by Comic Relief, as have many other projects delivered by the organisations we have worked for, so I am not questioning the worth of its work. However, there is something distasteful about the continuing image of the starving African child. Not just distasteful, but colonial. Do we only give when we see the face of a grubby toddler washed by tears? Western beneficence being dispensed from above, while the givers experience a sense of self-satisfaction with their own generosity and get annoyed if the recipients are not sufficiently grateful.

My grandmother used to talk about 'knitting jimmy jingo shirts for pickaninnies', much to our amusement, for such colonial attitudes were outdated even then, in the nineteen fifties. Our parents used to forbid us to buy the pictures of black babies which charities used to sell in those days, because they were so demeaning to the children concerned. Yet there are still charities which tug at the heartstrings with their 'feeding black babies' marketing tropes.

No, don't 'feed black babies' unless famine has been declared, in which case do it through DfID, using your taxes, or through a bona fide international humanitarian relief agency like UNICEF, Save the Children or the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC), which knows how to do it properly. Instead support development organisations or non-governmental organisations (NGOs) which help communities develop agricultural skills to combat climate change, which supply drought-resistant seeds or which help to dig irrigation channels or wells. Support educational charities which sponsor children, particularly girls, to attend school where they learn practical skills for life and work rather than engage in child labour. Support medical charities which help women to give birth safely so that no family is left motherless and fewer disabled children are born.

Even the most well intentioned actions can have perverse effects. Donating clothes to Africa puts local cotton producers, seamstresses and traders out of business. Local trade should be encouraged. Similarly, dumping excess food from western countries undermines local producers. People often cannot eat because they do not have enough money to buy the food sold in their area, not because there is absolutely no food at all. Small cash transfers are proving more successful than handouts in kind.

In Malawi, I once came across the following slogan painted on the perimeter wall of a well-known British charity: 'putting an end to hunger in Africa, one school meal at a time'. NO! That is a stop gap, not a solution. Providing 'school feeding' in such contexts simply means that the one meal per day which children receive will come from school rather than their parents, thus discouraging their families from feeding them. School meals are rarely supplementary feeding as they are in Britain. They certainly do not improve agricultural practice which is the ONLY thing which will prevent hunger in the future. Nor do they teach parents about how they can best meet their children's nutritional needs out of what is available locally.

Furthermore, it is not just a question of ensuring people's dignity. Almost all developing countries have made significant progress in the last few years. Here is David Lammy again:

Comic Relief retains a narrow perspective that fails to convey the bigger picture of progress in the continent, which is that life expectancies are up by over 10% in 37 African states; the percentage increase in the GDP of the 11 largest sub-Saharan countries was over twice that of the world average, and almost four times that of the US, over the past decade; and remittances from the African diaspora are $9bn higher than the amount sent in international aid. The Nigerian film industry – Nollywood – has even overtaken Hollywood as the world’s second largest moviemaker.

An important point, that: Africans abroad provide more support for their own people than does western aid. That is as it should be, but how many people know it? Few African countries are 'basket cases', entirely dependent on external support. It is true that many of them have major problems with corruption, but then so do we, though it is not so obvious. For this reason, the European Union and our own DfID have good governance as a major priority. This is what DfID states about its work in Malawi.

We work in Malawi to help alleviate poverty, support economic growth and encourage good governance.
Malawi is one of the world’s poorest countries, with some of the worst development statistics for a non-conflict country. It ranks 171 out of 187 in the Human Development Index (2012)... Challenging economic and political contexts in the last 2 years have hampered progress on key indicators. The following 3 priorities underpin our work:

  • we are committed to addressing the poverty and inequality facing large parts of the population.
  • we are committed to supporting economic growth and wealth creation to turn the economy around and sustainably help people out of poverty.
  • we recognise the importance of good governance and will actively promote an open society and improved governance in Malawi.
Some of the Malawian public servants with whom I work, are insistent that the country should be able to manage its own affairs without the support of external agencies. It is a question of will.

Charities are also moving away from handouts to partnerships. An organisation I have recently come across and now support is Lend with care, This NGO engages in microfinance initiatives. Supporters lend a small group of, say, honey producers or farmers, a small amount of money (£15 is suggested) to extend their business or provide the capital needed to buy a plough or certified seeds. The group then pays it back bit by bit. I have lent money to a group of women farmers in southern Malawi who have already made several payments.

Finally, many countries struggle because of what is happening both globally and within our own countries, both the UK and Scotland itself. Here is David Lammy again:

Most of all, Comic Relief should challenge its audience not just to feel guilty, but angry: angry that wars that have plagued the continent are permitted by an international market that places more restrictions on the exchange of bananas than it does on AK-47s; incandescent that the corruption in many states is fuelled by “donations” from shell companies linked to corporations that are listed on our own stock exchange. 

Scotland is now known to be a popular location for 'shell' companiesshell company is a company that exists but does not actually do any business or have any assets. They are not all necessarily illegal, but they are sometimes used illegitimately to disguise business ownership from law enforcement or the public. Have a look at the plaques on the doors of some Edinburgh offices.

We all of us have our 'favourite' good causes, often relating to personal experiences of illness or places we have travelled to or relationships with people in need. That is only natural. For some of us, our 'good cause' will be a local organisation in Scotland which provides support in a context with which we are familiar, for example, a food bank. For others, it will be a more 'impersonal' international organisation like Oxfam, with years of experience in both humanitarian and development work, or an organisation working in a religious context like a CAFOD or Christian Aid. Or we may know of a specific struggling school in an Indian city, or a hospital which needs equipment. If we are fortunate enough to be comfortably off, we can manage to support more than one of these good causes, and if not, there is plenty which can be done without money to support the work they do.

What we should not be doing is making value judgements about the relative worth of people in Scotland and people abroad.

Africa deserves better from Comic Relief, David Lammy, The Guardian, 24 March 2017

UK aid in Malawi: "Changing lives for decades to come", Save the Children blog, 13 June 2016

DfID Development Tracker for its projects in Malawi

British aid money spent trying to boost British role in Malawi oil sector, Alice Ross, The Guardian, 21 November 2016

UK reinforces strong historic ties to Malawi, Gov UK website (about UK role in combating hunger in Malawi)

Red Nose Day: the difference you make (Comic Relief website)

Comic Relief partners with Scottish Government and the Treasury to empower Women and Girls, 5 January 2017

Improving the lives of slum  dwellers in Malawi, Pump aid with the help of Comic Relief

Scots shell companies used to launder 4 billion out of Russia, the Sunday Herald, 27 March 2017.

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